FEMA Turns Down State’s Request For Larger Culverts

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A stream crossing in Townshend is the test culvert for building back town infrastructure in a more resilient fashion after the devastation of Tropical Storm Irene.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it won’t pay for larger culverts like the one in Townshend that the state says are needed to withstand future floods. FEMA says the state is applying inconsistent standards.

But the Shumlin Administration says it will appeal the case to the next level in Washington.

The culvert in question is on Dam Road in Townshend. FEMA says it will only pay for a smaller, pipe-style culvert. The box culvert is about $100,000 more expensive. Irene Recovery Officer Sue Minter says about 3,000 projects are under review by the federal agency, so the Townsend decision could have a huge impact.

"What we learned is that FEMA was not reimbursing towns for the highest standard of repair," Minter says. "We have appealed that decision, because we believe we must build back stronger. We believe it is FEMA’s mission to support policies to mitigate future hazards, and of course, reduce future costs."

The state wants towns to follow standards put forward by the Agency of Natural Resources. In many cases, these call for larger structures that can safely carry flood waters without washing out or destroying roads. Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears says more robust culverts and bridges will leave the state in better shape after the next flood.

"There are also the environmental benefits of avoiding all of the sediment, the debris and material that washed down through the streams when you have a road wash out," Mears says. "We all saw the pictures of Long Island Sound and of Lake Champlain and all of the Vermont sediment that had washed into these waterways. We can avoid that if we properly size these culverts and bridges."

FEMA spokesman David Mace says the agency can’t pay for larger culverts if the state doesn’t apply a uniform standard.

"Now the state is asserting that FEMA should pay for the upgrade, in this case for a culvert in Townshend, because the upgrade is required by the Agency of Natural Resources stream alteration permit. But FEMA has determined that the ANR standards are discretionary and not uniformly applied," he says. "And therefore FEMA will not pay to upgrade the Dam Road culvert as requested because of the fact that the standards are discretionary."

Sue Minter, the Irene recovery officer, says climate change is the big issue behind the state’s efforts.

"Our goal to build back stronger than Irene found us is about adopting to a changing climate and the possibility, and indeed likelihood, that we will get more intense flooding events," she says. "And that is why we need these larger structures throughout the state to look to the future and to make sure our communities remain safe and that we reduce the costs of having to rebuild the infrastructure after every storm."

Mace points out that FEMA has already paid out $6.2 million to towns to upgrade facilities damaged or destroyed by Irene. But he says FEMA’s policy is to reimburse towns for amounts that the towns would pay for themselves, not at a higher level if the feds foot the bill.

PDF: Read the FEMA response to appeal

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